November is National Adoption Awareness Month.
You probably know a stepparent. You likely have one, and may even be one yourself. You also probably know parents who have adopted their children, but how many stepparents do you know that legally adopted their stepchildren? *Raises hand* I did just that, and guess what? The marriage didn’t even work out! (I’m not saying that stepparent adoption is an indication of whether a marriage will last, simply that I can tell you the details from all angles because I’ve been there.)
Living with a stepchild can be confusing. You are legally bound to the child’s biological parent, but have zero legal rights to this minor living in your home. You may be expected to parent the child, but not too much because you’re constantly reminded the child “isn’t actually yours.” You may be providing financial and emotional support for the child, but you can’t even take him to the dentist without signed consent from the biological parent. You’re a parent…or are you?
Legal adoption is a sure-fire way to solidify your status without a shadow of a doubt. Before you decide to go for it, here are a few things to consider:
Your name will be on the birth certificate. The biological parent that gave up rights will be removed from the document. It’s gratifying to see your name in print here, especially if you have poured your blood, sweat, and tears into this little person for many years. Your name on this coveted paper gives you the right to make medical, financial, religious, legal, travel, and other decisions regarding the child without anyone’s permission.
A piece of paper won’t change behavior issues. You may hope that adoption will give your stepchild a sense of security, but attachment or behavior issues are unlikely to change because of a few thousand dollars and a court date. The dynamic in the home won’t change without counseling and hard work, and even that is no guarantee.
Your family will be “safe.” If you haven’t adopted and something happens to your spouse, your stepchild could be separated from the only home she has ever known. A stepparent isn’t often considered next-of-kin, especially if another biological parent still has rights. The non-custodial parent is allowed to re-enter the child’s life at any time, regardless of how unfit or absent she may have been, as long as she still has legal rights.
The process may not be simple. The non-custodial biological parent has to sign away her rights for you to be able to adopt the child. Parenthood is a source of pride for some, even if they don’t know the first thing about the child and haven’t sent a penny in support. Many initially refuse to give up their rights, but after learning she will have to pay past due and future child support, often this is enough to allow the adoption. If the biological parent feels threatened or coerced, the entire adoption will be null and void. If she refuses to terminate her parental rights, you’ll have to prove she is unfit in court. It could be an emotional roller coaster.
It’s permanent, even if the marriage isn’t. After the ink is dry, you’ll be responsible for the child until he is 18, regardless of whether your marriage to his parent lasts. Don’t avoid this ugly possibility: In the event of a divorce, you are expected to pay child support, just as if you were the biological parent. There will be a custody plan and visitation schedule. You may also have to pay for the child’s insurance, medical bills, and education.
What’s best for the child? Think long and hard about what could happen during the remaining years until your stepchild is 18. Is the non-custodial biological parent simply absent, or could a future relationship with that person really hurt your stepchild? If you have a parental relationship with this child and your romantic relationship with his father ends, you could possibly be cut off from the child. Do you plan on having children of your own with your spouse? How would these scenarios affect the child?
Are you a stepparent considering adoption? What’s your motivation, and what’s your biggest fear?